The Corner

Commentary Writer: American People Are Really Pretty Terrible

In a recent issue of NR I made the case that the public debate about immigration too often ignores or treats as disreputable widespread concerns about social cohesion. One of my foils was Jonathan Tobin, a prolific blogger for the conservative publication Commentary who is its most frequent writer on immigration. He has now used the occasion of Representative Steve King’s stupid outburst against illegal immigrants to write a response.

The engagement does not begin auspiciously, with Tobin writing that my arguments “seem to be primarily about putting an intellectual gloss on hostility to newcomers that is a prejudice that is as old as the republic.” He continues, “when Ponnuru speculates that polls that show hostility to immigrants are based on the ‘cultural’ concerns he is championing, what he is doing is exposing the ugly underside of a movement that has more in common with 19th century Know Nothings than modern conservatism.” 

In the first place, I didn’t say anything about “polls that show hostility to immigrants.” I cited several polls that showed that far more Americans want to see levels of immigration reduced than see them increased. That does not mean that they want them reduced to zero, much less that they have “hostility” to them; most of those polls also show that Americans are open to providing legal status for illegal immigrants, for example. Tobin may not be able to distinguish between a prudent concern that immigration levels might be too high and an irrational dislike of immigrants as people, but there is no reason to dismiss out of hand the possibility that a lot of Americans are more sophisticated. Second, what are the sneer quotes around “cultural” there for? If a concern about assimilation and social cohesion isn’t cultural, then what is it? If the claim is that the purportedly cultural concern is really a racial one, then what’s his evidence? Third, what’s so “ugly” about Americans’ lack of enthusiasm for raising immigration levels or possibly having concerns about immigrants’ assimilation and social cohesion? Tobin never gets around to explaining.

Tobin writes,

What those who try to defend this point of view fail to understand or acknowledge is that their belief that this generation of immigrants is somehow different from every previous wave of newcomers to this nation is far from original. The same arguments about the unsavory impact on American society that will result from importing a large number of low-skilled immigrant workers were made in the 19th century about the Irish, Germans, Italians, and Jews.

Right: I’ve never encountered this cliche before! In reality, at no point did I make any argument about differences between current immigrants and previous immigrants; nor does the argument in any way depend on such differences. My actual views are 1) that we do less to assimilate newcomers than we used to — which is a claim about us, not them; and 2) that both then and now, larger inflows are harder to assimilate than smaller ones — which is a claim about a similarity not a difference. One does not have to approve of the way immigration was largely cut off from the mid 1920s through the mid 1960s to suspect that the low immigration levels of that era had something to do with the amount of assimilation that took place then.

The Know Nothings and their successors didn’t believe in the power of American society to assimilate new arrivals. Neither do those who oppose immigration today. While contemporary conditions are different, that basic truth is not. Immigrants always change America, but there is no reason to believe that the impact of this influx will be any less salubrious than the tide of Eastern and Southern Europeans that previous generations of nativists so feared.

It’s a little rich to be accused of not believing in America by a guy who thinks that a large majority of Americans, by opposing an increase in immigration, is ugly, ignorant, etc. What I actually “believe in” is the importance of degree: How fast assimilation takes place and how much of it takes place are not constants given to us by the truth of American ideals but contingent results of things like, well, our immigration policy.

[King’s] insults probably are a better representation of the core beliefs of the anti-immigrant crowd than the more presentable views of Ponnuru. . . . What Speaker Boehner and other responsible Republican leaders must understand is that by allowing King and other knee-jerk anti-reform members to intimidate the GOP caucus into spiking any chance for reform, he is letting the House be governed by the basest instincts in our political firmament. . . . King’s outburst is just the latest evidence to show that the “cultural” basis for opposing the legislation (as opposed to the reasoned approach taken by Kristol and Lowry) that is drenched in prejudice is the real driving force behind this debate. . . . [L]etting people like King call the tune in the House will turn off moderates and conservatives that don’t wish to be associated with bigots and their fellow-travelers.

It is ideologically convenient and, I suppose, psychologically comforting to believe the worst of our opponents, although it is a little perverse given that most of the people whom Tobin is treating this way are in fact allies of Commentary on most issues. Tobin provides literally no evidence for thinking that his characterization applies to most opponents of the bill, let alone to most people who think immigration should stay level or decrease (all of whom he seems to count in the “anti-immigrant crowd”). I suppose it would be unfair to say that if you took away words such as “basest,” “ugly,” and the like, Tobin’s post would be half as long; but it would certainly feel that way.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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